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Suit says bank rigged auction

Two former officers of SunBank of Pasco County have accused the bank of forcing them to resign because they objected to the bank's efforts to rig an auction.

In a lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Tampa, Timothy A. Pierson, a former senior vice president, and W. Bayne Rounds, a vice president, accused the bank of violating state and federal statutes that prevent financial institutions and other businesses from firing or discriminating against employees who provide information about possible illegal conduct.

The employees are seeking to be reinstated and are asking for "substantial monetary damages," according to their attorney, Charles Burr of Tampa.

The lawsuit states that Pierson and Rounds, and other SunBank employees, last March were involved in the auction of property that the bank had foreclosed on.

The properties included subdivision lots in Zephyrhills, a medical clinic and a condominium in Hudson, and vacant land in Hudson and Dade City.

The lawsuit states that the bank president, John Batsch, suggested the bank have a "surreptitious bidder" to act on behalf of the bank. Pierson and Rounds, as well as other employees, objected.

At the auction, the lawsuit states, Pierson and Rounds learned that a representative for the bank was there and that the person had bid on the properties. The bidder made the highest offer on one of the properties, according to the lawsuit.

Pierson and Rounds reported this to SunBank officials from the bank's Orlando headquarters, but according to the lawsuit, an investigation by a SunBank internal committee concluded that "no illegal or unethical act had occurred. . . ."

The committee said "the apparent problems had resulted from poor communication," according to the lawsuit.

Pierson and Round said that after they initially protested, they received poor evaluations and were harassed by Batsch.

On Aug. 7, they notified state and federal authorities they believed a legal violation had occurred. Pierson resigned on Aug. 17. Rounds resigned on Sept. 9.

Batsch did not return telephone calls for comment Tuesday.

Wendell Colson, a SunBanks Inc. officer in Orlando who is mentioned in the lawsuit, did not return a telephone call for comment.

Burr said that SunBank's internal investigation was "a whitewash." He said the state comptroller's office is investigating whether SunBank used a surreptitious bidder.